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What’s more punk rock than a Broadway musical? Right? On the surface, the fast-pounding, anarchist vibe of punk rock and the glitzy extravagance of Broadway musicals would seem incompatible.
But Green Day is not a typical “punk rock” band and “American Idiot” is not a typical Broadway show.
Descended from a long line of rock musicals like the Who’s “Tommy,” “Rent” and “Hair,” “American Idiot” is a raucous blend of righteous anger, passion and power chords. The Michigan State University Department of Theatre production directed by Brad Willcuts currently running at the Pasant Theatre is a timely, present day update of the rock opera album turned musical originally written during the George W. Bush administration.
Unlike some other rock music oriented musicals, “American Idiot” is not a jukebox musical made up of Green Day’s greatest hits but rather a coming of age story of three friends moving beyond and then back to their suburban hometown. Johnny (Jacob Covert) heads to the big city to be a musician but becomes a drug addict, Tunny (Mel Vandenberg) joins the army and is wounded in combat, and Will (Evan Houdek) stays behind to live with his pregnant girlfriend (Shelby Antel). Along the way, Johnny falls in love with Whatsername (Janette Angelini) and gets heroin from a charismatic St. Jimmy (Max Sanders) while Tunny falls in love with her rehab nurse Extraordinary Girl (Molly Bennett). Everyone eventually ends up at home again but of course more grown up.
Covert is arguably the strongest individual voice. Lean, tall, and clad in super tight black jeans, Covert looks the part of a rock band lead singer. He also sounds like it with a voice that closely resembles Green Day’s lead singer and songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, a welcome detail especially for a university production. Covert’s strongest number is the soul searching “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” but his vocal prowess and chemistry with the cast really strengthen the entire production.
As Johnny’s roommate Tunny, Vandenberg does a capable job playing a role that was originally written for a male. Vandenberg often struggles to stay on pitch, but always commits to the emotion of the song.
As the friends left behind, Houdek and Antel share explosive chemistry especially on “Too Much Too Soon” when Antel as Heather walks out with their baby to leave her slacker, stoner husband to care for himself.
While the cast and ensemble are solid, the technical elements of “American Idiot” really make the show. Peter Verhaeghe’s scenic design of seedy industrial platforms puts the band on top with lots of room for the cast to run and roam. It also leaves plenty of space for Heather Brown’s lighting design, Violet Jones’ fun props like a push-cart bus, and two giant video walls for media design by Alison Dobbins. MSU incorporates media design in most shows staged at the Pasant. But the video projections in this show are particularly strong, visually enhancing emotions and characters with kaleidoscopic colors or serving as instant set backdrops that prevent the need for cumbersome, roll-away set pieces. In addition, co-choreographers Brad Willcuts and Karen Vance designed some killer choreography for their tight ensemble that pops, locks, kicks and just rocks.
Musical director Dave Wendelberger keeps the band rocking without overpowering the singers. Pit drummers don’t usually get mentioned in reviews, but Ethan Lucas is especially solid with his stamina to power the band for 90 solid minutes.
The biggest hurdle for the production, besides singers occasionally singing out of tune, opening night was the sound mix. Singers could be heard but not easily understood unless they were singing in unison and microphones frequently dipped in and out for singers, leaving the audience struggling to understand the emotionally driven lyrics.
What MSU occasionally misses in sound quality, they make up for in youthful vigor and sharp choreography. Besides, punk rock has never been known for its singers or sound quality. At its core, “American Idiot” is about the healing power of music, and the strength needed to survive the administration of an American idiot.
“Green Day’s American Idiot”
MSU Department of Theatre 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday April 18-19; 8 p.m. Friday April 20; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday April 21; 2 p.m. Sunday April 22 ** Post-Show Discussion Thursday, April 19, 2018 (Following the Performance) $22 general admission/$20 seniors and faculty/$10 children 12 and under The Pasant Theatre, 750 E. Shaw Ln., East Lansing (800) WHARTON, Whartoncenter.com